Friday, November 07, 2003

Ongoing Hegemonic Appropriations

I've suffered many sleepless nights worrying about the "ongoing hegemonic appropriations" going on around me. What with worrying about paying the rent, feeding our children, and holding down a jobs, you would think we would at last confront this growing problem. Where are the authorities when you really need them?

Just what the hell does it mean? Well, nothing actually. This seems to be the "ongoing" trend in much of academic writing. Clarity, cohesiveness, and enlightenment were once the laudable goals of the educated writer, but this is no longer the case. Obfuscation, misrepresentation and a reliance on arcane and nonsensical jargon are the order of the day. I suppose they think it makes them somehow sound more important, but in reality, it only increases my contempt.

This example is from a review by Azfar Hussain of Dis/locating Cultures/Identitites, Traditions, and Third World Feminism by Uma Narayan.

"Narayan's preoccupations with the problematics of the representations of sati in Western feminist discourse indeed remain intimately connected to other representationalist discursive areas, namely dowry-murders in India and domestic violence-murders in the United States -- issues that she takes up in the third chapter of her book. Narayan takes a hard, critical look at the ways in which dowry-murders in India are framed, focused, and even formulated in US academic feminist discourse, while pointing up the dangerous problems kept alive by Western culturalist epistemological approaches to Third-World subjects, identities, traditions, and cultures. She argues that while crossing "borders" in the age of globalization, images, narratives, and the entire chain of events pertaining to the Third World lose their national and historical differentia specifica under the homogenizing epistemic logic of some readily available connection-making apparatuses. As Narayan further argues, such apparatuses -- informational, ideological, and mediatic as they are -- continue to provide visibility to dowry-murders in India and relative invisibility to domestic-violence murders in the US, thereby serving the hegemonic."

Not only is this bad writing, it is bad thinking. In fact, it is reminiscent of Orwell's parody of a passage from the book of Ecclesiastes in his essay "Politics and the English Language":

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern English:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account."

I have deduced that Hussain wants me to understand western feminists don't "get" dowry murder and they are looking at it through a cultural lens that does not look favorably upon it. OK, so why couch it in such obtuse language? In one paragraph I count five neologisms alone. Certainly, there are fields of study that require a certain amount of technical language, or jargon if you will, that can express specific thoughts or problems germane to that field. But if it can be expressed in ordinary language, why not do it?
In this next paragraph, Hussain at least keeps the neologisms down to four:

"Such a self-critical interrogation begins to complicate the very question of identity itself in ways in which the continuing "colonialist" process of constructing "Third-World" identity and also even the practice of conjuring the ghost of authenticity haunting that very identity (as exemplified in various brands of counterproductive, essentialist identity-politics these days) are all brought into productive crises. For Narayan, indeed, the question of identity continues to constitute a predominant concern throughout the book. And her insistence on historicizing and contextualizing identity and difference within the deeply specific national contexts -- instead of just celebrating or, worse, fetishizing them -- seems right on the mark. According to her, the fetishization of difference and identity only renders them vulnerable to ongoing hegemonic appropriations in the metropolis."

How the hell does one "fetishize" something? Perhaps if academic writers would quit "historicizing", "contextualizing" and using words like "mediatic", we could all rest a little easier and concentrate on those "ongoing hegemonic appropriations."


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